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So we're starting, we're rolling. Are we already recording, looking at your notes? This is so official. Hey, guys, it's Brian Baumgartner. Maybe you've heard my podcast, an oral history of the Office, where we go deep into the making of the show now. Well, you can go even deeper. That's what she said, because I am sharing my full length conversations with the cast and crew of the office. Listen to the office deep dive on the I Heart radio app, Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Since tomorrow is Valentine's Day, we are bringing a historical love story out as our classic episode today. This is Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who we first talked about on February 14th of twenty eighteen.
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class A production of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Tracy Wilson and I'm calling for on today's podcast is coming out on Valentine's Day. So we thought it would be a good day to talk about a famous literary couple, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Gertrude Stein is an icon in the world of modernist literature. And although Alice B. Toklas is more often described as her partner and assistant, she was a published writer as well.
And Assistant does not really begin to cover how important she was to Stein's life and work also together. The two of them famously hosted a salon at their Paris home that was frequented by artists and writers such as Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ari Matisse.
And that Salon was really influential in the whole world of literature and art.
Yeah, it gets referenced in a lot of people's life biographies that, oh, we met Gertrude Stein so that she's kind of becomes a big, big connecting point in in history at that point. So Gertrude Stein was born in Alleghany, Pennsylvania, on February 3rd, 1874. She was the youngest of five children. She had two sisters and two brothers. And her father was an immigrant to the United States, having moved here from Bavaria in 1841. The family was Jewish, and although they belonged to a synagogue, they were not particularly observant.
Gertrude's family moved back to Europe for five years when she was still a baby. And when they returned, they started out in Baltimore, where Gertrude had relatives on her mother's side. Eventually, though, they moved to Oakland, California, and they lived really comfortably there. Thanks to her father's investments and rental properties and streetcar lines, they were pretty well off family. Gertrude Stein is the person who coined the famous phrase, there is no there there. And it was in reference to Oakland out of context.
People tended to interpret it as being dismissive of Oakland as a city. But it comes from everybody's autobiography, which she published in 1937. And it's really more about the painfully nostalgic experience of trying to go home again and finding that everything is changed. By the time Gertrude was seventeen, both of her parents had died, her mother in 1888 and her father in 1891. After her father's death, Gertrude's oldest brother, Michael, inherited the family businesses. He took her and her siblings with him to San Francisco, where he was a division superintendent of the Market Street Railway.
After about a year, Gertrude, her brother Leo and her sister Bertha all moved back to Baltimore to live with an aunt.
Gertrude and Leo were very close, and when he got into Harvard, she went to Cambridge, Massachusetts with him. She enrolled at Harvard School for Women, which was known as Harvard Annex when she started but had been renamed Radcliffe College by the time she graduated in 1897.
While she was in college, Gertrude Stein was deeply interested in psychology. She studied under psychologist William James. She published two formal papers in psychology before she graduated. The first of them, which was her first published work ever, was, quote, Normal Motor Automatism, which she co-authored with Leon Salomon's. This paper detailed a series of experiments and automatic writing to the subjects would have their hand resting on a planchet. They would focus their attention on something else, like reading a story and like let their hand write on its own.
And just to be clear, since automatic writing also has some paranormal connotations, they were interpreting the writing that resulted from these experiments as the work of the subconscious.
Now, as the work of some kind of spirit, there were no Ouija boards presence.
And this work in the psychology lab influenced Stine's later writing. James's own work in psychology influenced her as well, particularly the idea of a stream of consciousness which was first described in his 1890 The Principles of Psychology. We're going to talk more about that later. After graduating from Radcliffe, Stein went to on to Johns Hopkins Medical School. She started there in 1897, but it didn't go very well. Toward the end of her studies, she started failing classes.
She had also become infatuated with Mary Bookstaber, who was nicknamed May. She was involved with one of Gertrude Stein classmates. May did not return Gertrude's affections, and Gertrude had already really been struggling with depression. So all of this together left her feeling really dejected and despondent. And a fictionalized version of May Bookstaver would be part of some of Gertrude Stein's later creative work.
By this point, Leo Stein had moved to London, so in nineteen to Gertrude, dropped out of Johns Hopkins and joined him there in.
You know, three, they moved to France, where Leo had a flat at 27 Rue de flew in Montparnasse, Michael and Sara Stein, along with their son Alan, soon moved into a home nearby as well. And Michael had been shrewd in his management of their father's investments, and it was largely his money that allowed them all to have a very comfortable life in France. It was in France at the age of 29 that Gertrude Stein really started to dedicate herself to writing.
She and her brother were also patrons of the arts. They sought out avant garde artists whose work was at the time unknown. This developed into a massive collection of modern art by people who would become really famous. They were basically buying art from people who nobody knew about at the time. And then later on, those those people would have a serious name for themselves. The biggest presences in that collection were Paul on Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. A lot of other artists are part of this collection, too, including Edward Monday and Ari Toulouse Lautrec.
This collection literally filled the walls at 27 Rouda floors. And in 1968, James Almelo, writing for The New York Times, described it as the first the world's first Museum of Modern Art. I know I'm romanticizing it, but this whole life situation sounds pretty heavenly life where we have enough money to kind of do what we want. Let's go find unknown and obscure artists. We'll just have beautiful art around us all the time. And we live in France.
That sounds lovely. Yes, it really does.
And it's likely that Leo was really the one who introduced Gertrude to the Parisian art scene. But Gertrude developed a particular interest in one specific artist, and that was Pablo Picasso. Gertrude's patronage helped Picasso stay afloat in the early part of his career. In 1996, he painted her portrait, which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Today, in 1987, Gertrude Stein met Alice B. Toklas. Alice was born in San Francisco on April 30th of 1877. Her parents were Ferdinand Toklas and Emma Lovinsky, and she was their oldest child and their only daughter. Like Gertrude, Alice's father was an immigrant having to come to Poland in 1865. Her mother's father and uncles had emigrated from Poland as well.
Another similarity between the two families is that the Toklas were Jewish, but not especially observant. Alice had a well-off but otherwise conventional childhood, with the family moving to Seattle in 1890, she attended private schools before going to the University of Seattle, and she enjoyed art and music. And she was good enough at the piano that for a while she actually thought about becoming a concert pianist. Ellis also loved reading, and her favorite writer was Henry James, brother of Gertrude psychology mentor William James.
The Toklas family eventually moved back to San Francisco, and Alice's mother, Emma, died there in 1897 when Alice was twenty.
In San Francisco, the Toklas became acquainted with some of the Stein family. And in 1936, in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake, Michael and Sara Stein traveled back from France to check on all their property there.
Alice was captivated by the Stine's stories of Europe, and since the death of her mother, she'd found herself spending most of her time keeping house for the men in her family. She'd also come to understand that she was attracted to other women. All of this together made her life in California feel really narrow and restrictive.
So in 1987, at the age of 30, she decided to try to find more freedom for herself in Paris, traveling there with her friend Harriet Lane Levy.
On September 8th, 1997, Gertrude Stein met Alice B. Toklas for the first time at the Paris home of Michael Stein. That was Toklas first day in Paris. And we will talk about how they started to build a life together after a quick sponsor break.
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She offered encouragement. She transcribed, she typed, she made corrections. She managed their household and their life together, even though they often had a hired cook. Toklas was also very skilled in the kitchen, and she did petit point embroidery, including in designs that Pablo Picasso created for her. So cool. Two years after they met, Stein published her first book, Three Lives, one of the pieces in it is a novella called Wielangta, and it's about a woman of the same name who is described in the book as a mulatto and her relationship with a black doctor.
At the time, this story earned a lot of praise for being a depiction of black life written by a white woman. But of course, today that seems patronizing and dated. And it was largely about Stine's relationship with May Bookstaver recast as being between a man and woman of color. Alice moved in with Gertrude and Leo in 1910, and things did not go very well between the two siblings. Some of Leo's differences with his sister were artistic. Leo didn't think Gertrude's writing was particularly good, which Gertrude resented.
Gertrude had also become an avid supporter of the cubist art movement, which Leo didn't think was particularly valuable or noteworthy.
This seems like such a sibling thing, right? Yeah, but on a more personal level, the word homophobia had not been coined yet. And as we talk about in our recent episode on Alistar, the idea of lesbianism as an identity was in its infancy at the turn of the 20th century. But Leo knew that Gertrude and Alice were not simply close platonic friends and he did not approve of that.
So in 1913, Leo Stein moved out of the flat at 27 Rue de Villiers. He and Gertrude divided up that massive art collection with Gertrude portion, including the Picasso's. When they were done, Leo wrote to his sister saying, quote, I hope that we will all live happily ever after and maintain our respective and do proportions while sucking gleefully our respective oranges. During their time living together, Gertrude and her brother had been regularly hosting artists in their home, but Leo had been the more outgoing, gregarious one.
Gertrude had mostly stuck to the background. And once her brother moved out, Gertrude moved into his former role, often being the one to talk to writers and painters while Alice socialized with their wives. A lot of Stein's work from the 1980s was inspired by Cubism, that very geometric, abstract movement that was inspired by art from Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Cubism distilled life down to geometric forms and the movements earlier years. You could usually still recognize what the original subject of the painting had been.
So, for example, Picasso's LA Demoiselle Daniel, for example, is obviously a group of nude women, but they're also painted in a very angular and flattened way. By about 1910, though, cubist painters were doing what was called hermetic or analytic cubism, and this had a lot of overlapping, angular shapes, often in a very monochrome palette with the real subject that had, you know, been the starting point for the painting being barely discernible, if at all.
Stein did with words with the cubist painters were doing with paint and canvas, rather than trying to write descriptively in a conventional way that reflected real life, she distilled things down to little bits and seemingly disconnected words. A good example is 1914 Tender Buttons, a collection of experimental hermetic pieces arranged into objects, food and rooms. So to give listeners a sense of what this was like, dog from objects reads, quote, A little monkey goes like a donkey.
That means to say. That means to say that more last goes, leave with it. A little monkey goes like a donkey.
Stein's work was also heavily influenced by William James's ideas of the stream of consciousness, which we mentioned earlier. As James described it, a person's state of mind change. But all these states connect to one another. And within these different connected states, ideas and words repeat themselves. But their meaning changes through that repetition and through their relationships to each other. Stein put this concept into practice in works like Sacred Emily, which was where she first penned her most famous line.
Rose is a rose, is a rose, is a rose sacred.
Emily was written in 1913 and published in the book Geography and Plays in 1922. It's a 367 line poem, nearly all of it, one and two syllable words, which recounts the day of an ordinary woman at whom the lines are really choppy and repetitive. Seven lines in a row are just the word pale paly by itself. Some lines build on each other, so one portion of it reads, quote, Put something down, put something down some day, put something down some day in, put something down some day in my in my hand, in my hand, write in my handwriting.
Put something down some day in my handwriting.
Today, Gertrude Stein is considered to be a pioneer in modernist literature. But there is some debate about exactly how much of her work directly influenced other writers. At the time, stream of consciousness became its own style of writing connected to, but still distinct from the stream of conscious idea in William James's psychology work. James Joyce wrote Ulysses after being exposed to Stein's work. But it's not completely clear whether he intentionally followed her example. On the other hand, Stein's cubist and hermetic work definitely had its detractors the same kinds of criticisms that you will hear about cubist art or modern abstract art in general.
People, just as people describe abstract art as not art or as just blotches of paint or whatever, people described Stein's writing as unreadable nonsense that didn't mean anything and had no value.
She kept at it, though.
Stein and Toklas went to America at the start of World War One and then returned to France in 1916, where they volunteered for the American fund for the French wounded. Stein learned to drive, and she and Toklas started delivering hospital supplies to outposts in rural France.
Back in Paris after the war, Stein and Toklas were still hosting their salons. They were still buying art, although now people like Picasso and Matisse were too famous for them to really afford. Stein really kept her focus on the avant garde and they turned their attention to finding lesser known surrealists to buy their art.
It was also after World War One that Stein coined the term lost generation for the American writers who had come of age during the war, and we're making a name for themselves in the 1920s, she said she'd heard a garage owner refer to young people as a I do, which means lost generation. And then later on, she brought it up in a conversation with Ernest Hemingway saying, You are all a lost generation. It was Hemingway who popularized the term which came to apply both to that whole generation of Americans and especially to the American expatriate writers living in Europe, including, of course, Hemingway and F.
Through all of this, through the war, after the war, all of it, Stein and Toklas, were inseparable. They had a whole collection of pet names for one another. Stein called Toklas wifey. Toklas called Stein Levy. They called each other Mr. and Mrs. Cuttle Waddle's. These are just examples. Stein often stayed up really late writing and she would leave little notes by the pillow for Toklas to find when she woke up in the morning signing them wide for your darling.
Although Stein was definitely the more famous, Toklas played an active part in managing her literary career, including eventually managing the small press they established to publish Stein's more unconventional works. It was Toklas in support that kept Stein writing through the 1920s and into the early 1930s. Although their salon was immensely popular and had become sort of an incubator for avant garde artists and writers who were more experimental and unconventional, books didn't really sell. Stein wanted literary glory, and without Toklas urging her on, she might have given up in those years without it.
Although people tend to describe the two women as near opposites, with Stein being the dominating force in the relationship, Toklas definitely held her own when she wanted to. Case in point, Ernest Hemingway made no secret of the fact that he wanted a sexual relationship with Gertrude Stein. Alice B. Toklas was having none of that and eventually got Stein to cut him out of their social circle. Their relationship, though, also was not a continual honeymoon with never a crossword.
Multiple people who knew them commented on Stein and Toklas, his ability to have really blistering fights. In 1933, Stein published her most commercially successful work and her only bestseller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It is her most conventional book, except that it calls itself an autobiography, and it's written from Alice's point of view. But Gertrude is the author, and it's largely about Gertrude. The book also gave Gertrude Stein a chance to write about herself as a genius without being like, Hey y'all, I'm a genius.
As an example, here is how in Toklas voice Gertrude Stein wrote of their first meeting. Quote, I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken. And I may say that in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas also really emphasized Gertrude Stein's purported personal influence on the Cubism School of Art, something that highly offended a great many cubist artists.
There's part of me that's like, man, I wish I had that kind of confidence. While both women had been well known in Parisian artistic and literary circles, this book made both of them internationally famous Stine as its author and Toklas as its purported subject. They both traveled back to the United States so Stein could carry out a sold out lecture tour. This was a huge publicity event that included newsreel appearances, tea with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and meetings with such famous names as Charlie Chaplin.
This would also be Stein's last visit to the United States. After a quick sponsor break, we will get to their lives during and after World War Two, which, in what may surprise some listeners, the extent of which surprised me, included a heavy dose of supporting the Vichy government and its collaboration with Nazi Germany.
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Between the two World Wars, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas kept up their life in Paris when they weren't on that enormous and wildly successful publicity tour, they hosted their salons.
They traveled, they kept on collecting art. They were also fond of dogs and they had several pets during their life together. In 1937, they moved into a new apartment at five Rue Christine.
At the start of World War Two, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas decided to stay in France, even though, as an elderly Jewish couple with an enormous art collection, this was obviously very risky. And it was not a decision that they came too easily. They fretted back and forth about it through much of 1939, in 1940. Ultimately, they stayed.
Then they left Paris for the French countryside where they had a house in Berlin in a lot of people ask them why they stayed, because, I mean, really, that is a lot of risk factors for being in France during World War Two. Right, that they have their age. The fact that they are gay, they have the huge art collection like all of this together.
And the answers that they gave were kind of like Gertrude Stein was like, yeah, I didn't want to travel and I'm picky about my food.
So, I mean, I see how it would be hard to leave French food behind. I did care. So a lot of accounts really gloss over how they made this work. And the answer is that it was largely through the protection of Bernard Vye, who was a high ranking and openly anti-Semitic Vichy government official. Quick recap, if anyone needs a brush up on this part of World War to the Vichy government was installed after France fell to Nazi Germany.
It collaborated with Germany for the rest of the war. And it's named after the town of Vichy, which effectively acted as the French capital.
During World War Two, the Vichy government deported seventy five thousand Jews to Nazi extermination camps, and almost none of them survived. When Vichy chief of state Marshall Philippe banned secret societies in 1940, FYI himself compiled a list of Freemasons that led to 6000 imprisonments, nearly a thousand deportations and more than 500 deaths. It's not clear how much of his work during the war Stein knew about. She probably did not know about this whole Freemason list. She certainly knew that Jewish people were being rounded up and deported.
But she had been friends with Bernard Fay since 1926. And then later on, Toklas would call him Stein's dearest friend. The reason that Stein and Toklas were left alone was that fate arranged it with Philip Puttan.
Stein had a connection with Putin as well. In 1941, at Fihi Suggestion, she translated a set of his anti-Semitic speeches into English. She described herself as a propagandist for the Vichy government, faces protection of Stein and Toklas, extended to their Paris apartment as well while they were in Berlin.
Yet the Gestapo broke into that apartment and they started packing up all the art for removal. A neighbor contacted the gendarme who arrived on the scene and asked these Gestapo to show their requisition orders for the paintings. They didn't have orders which bought a little time. WHARFIE arranged for the art to be left alone. His protection didn't really extend to the rest of the apartment, though, and some of Stine's and Tailchaser's other possessions were looted after the war fire was put on trial for his collaboration with Nazi Germany.
And Stein wrote a letter in his defense to add to all of this.
In a May 6th, 1934 New York Times article, Gertrude Stein is quoted as saying, quote, I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize because he is removing all elements of contest and struggle from Germany by driving out the Jews and the Democratic and left elements. He is driving out everything that conducive to activity. That means peace. The general consensus is that she probably meant this ironically and given that Stein's entire literary career was about playing with and breaking the conventional rules of language, it was probably not intended to be taken at face value.
But her later support of PETA and the Vichy government and her defense of FYI make it hard to just dismiss that statement with, oh, she was supposed to be ironic there at the same time as all of this. I mean, she made steps that clearly seemed to support fascism and and the U.S. government. Stein and Toklas were also both huge supporters of allied troops in both World War One and World War Two. They really took a lot of American guys under their wing acting almost as godmothers.
I wrote them letters, posted them in their home. And for Stintz part, she wrote a lot of laudatory poems and stories about allied soldiers and French resistance fighters during World War Two.
We don't know how Stein's views might have evolved after the horrors of the Holocaust became more fully known. Not long after the war, she was diagnosed with what turned out to be inoperable stomach cancer. She died during surgery on July 27, 1946, at the age of 72. By the time she died, her body of work included novels, short stories, poems, plays, memoirs and opera librettos. She is buried at Paluska Cemetery in Paris. After Stein's death, Alice B.
Toklas converted to Catholicism, saying that she hoped that she would meet Gertrude again in heaven. She said that Stein's genius would have secured her a place there, even though she was a Jew. Toklas also spent the rest of her life publishing and promoting Stein's work. While Stein was alive, Toklas had never tried to compete with her in the world of literature. But after Stein's death, she published multiple works of her own. Two of these works were cookbooks.
The Alice B. Toklas cookbook blends recipes and memoir, giving glimpses of the two women's life together. It also includes a recipe for Hasheesh Fudge, which she said was given to her by painter and performance artist Brian Geisen. The other cookbook is called Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present A Book of Exquisite Cooking, which is a more straightforward recipe book. OK, that fudge recipe I see. She was pretty. I don't even know the best word. She was kind of just lighthearted about it.
Later on, she was like, oh, she gave me that recipe. But then the fact that it was in the cookbook sort of made her almost a cult figure within the counterculture movement in the 60s. But Toklas also wrote an actual memoir called What is Remembered, which came out in 1963, and it chronicles her nearly 40 year relationship with Gertrude Stein, ending with Stein's death at Alice B. Toklas, published work in magazines and newspapers as well.
After Stein died, Toklas often struggled to make ends meet. Aside from Picasso's portrait of Stein, which was bequeathed to the Met, Toklas had inherited nearly the whole art collection with Stein's nephew, Alan, as co beneficiary. The wheel included a provision that Toklas could sell pieces of the collection if she needed to. But she didn't really want to. She tried to keep as much of the collection intact as she could, and she lived off the generosity of friends.
By 1960, Alan Stein had died and his widow, Rubina Stein, removed the paintings from Toklas apartment while she was away in Rome and had them put in a vault at Chase Manhattan Bank in Paris. Rubenstein's argument was that the apartment was not a safe place for these paintings. And it is true that by this point a lot of these pieces had become very valuable and they were uninsured and being kept in a private residence without a lot of security.
But at the same time, Rubinstein took those paintings while Toklas was away, and she was motivated in part by Toklas having sold some of the Picasso drawings, which she was allowed to do. So Toklas got back from Rome to find an apartment with bare walls, and she was ultimately evicted from that apartment because of her extended time away. So she was simultaneously without a home and without the option of selling off paintings to support herself.
Toklas last years were difficult. She had very little money. She was increasingly poor health. In addition to having disabling cataracts and arthritis, she died on March 7th, 1967, at the age of 89. And now she is buried at a cemetery in Paris next to Gertrude Stein. A year later, the rest of the art collection was sold to the Museum of Modern Art Syndicate with a few pieces sold through art dealers.
When Gertrude Stein died, she left her literary archives to the Vinicky Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Yale University. And a lot of those papers are made public for the first time in the 1980s, which led to the publication of Baby Precious Always Shines Selected Love notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, which was edited by Kate Turner and came out in 1999. These notes are mostly from Stein and eight of them are from Toklas. So to close out here is one of these notes, which was from Gertrude to Alice, quote, Dear, it is not clear that I love her here.
Here in my heart, in me all through.
That was a lovely way to end an episode that had an upsetting, nasty foray into Nazi territory.
Yes, I mean, it it becomes one of those engaging pieces of history. Right. We're going to figure that a lot of people have looked up to and really enjoyed it. It is hard to face some of the negative parts. Yes. Such a person's life, but impossible. And I knew that they had basically been able to survive in France and the position that they were in because they were protected by this one Vichy government official. I and that I think a lot of people can conceptualize.
And it doesn't create a ton of cognitive dissonance because it's like, OK, you need to survive. This person had the ability to help you. You might accept their help. And it's like awesome from your safe armchair to be like, oh, I would never do that because that would violate my principles. But you don't actually know. But like, when it got into oh, and then she was translating all of these anti-Semitic speeches into English and she made a number of statements that obviously seem to be in support of fascism.
That's that's when I went, oh, man, I did not realize that you were going to ruin Gertrude Stein for some people today.
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